Owners of rooftop solar panels are a victim of their own success

T’is the season for BC Hydro to be jolly, while the days are short and the sun is low on the horizon.

The weak sun means that owners of rooftop solar panels won’t be generating enough electricity to sell back to BC Hydro.

Despite original enthusiasm, BC Hydro now claims they are paying customers too much for power generated by the installations.

Nancy Bepple. image: armchairmayor.ca

On their website, they like to post good-news stories of happy, energy-conscious customers with their solar panels; customers like former Kamloops city councillor (and former colleague of mine at Thompson Rivers University), Nancy Bepple. In no time after the installation, she was selling surplus electricity. After connecting to the grid in July, she had generated more electricity than she used.

Then BC Hydro got cold feet and wanted to walk away from the deal.

Bepple complained about BC Hydro’s reneging on the original deal.  In her article on the armchairmayor.ca in 2018, she says:

“Three years ago, I installed a 2000 W panel system on my house.  It was a sizeable investment of about $8,000, which will take 15 years or more to pay off. BC Hydro wants to walk away from their agreement with homeowners who generate solar power.” But she told me recently: “there is a $5000 rebate that speeds things up [payback] considerably.”

Peter Nix saw an opportunity and spent $145,000 from his pension savings on a 192-panel solar farm in B.C.’s Cowichan Valley in 2016. Then, BC Hydro told him BC they never meant to encourage people like him to sell power back to the grid:

“The purpose of the net-metering program has always been to provide our customers with the opportunity to use a small generating unit, fuelled by a renewable source, to offset some of their own usage, not to be a power supply source for BC Hydro,”

But why would electrical utilities not want as many sources of power as possible?

Maybe small power producers are just a nuisance with the huge Site C dam to come on line in a few years. Or maybe the addition of power to the grid at unpredictable times makes management of distribution difficult.

Or maybe energy is only one part of an electricity utility and the amount that customers are paid should reflect the total operation. That’s the case in California.

California’s 26-year-old program to put solar panels on customers’ homes has been wildly successful with more than 1.3 million residential solar installations, more than any other state.

The amount Californians are paid for the electricity they generate allows them to pay quickly for the cost of the solar panels. It only takes about three to four years for homeowners to recoup installation costs of US$20,000 by selling extra energy to the utilities.

Utilities say more needs to be done to make sure solar customers are paying for all the parts of the energy grid they use beyond energy generation, including transmission, distribution and even wildfire-prevention work.

Customers with solar panels should be paid for extra power they generate but at the true market rate. Otherwise, everyone else is subsidizing the cost of the installations.

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